At the Kitchen Table:
Shoshauna Shy Talks with Mark Kraushaar

Lester and Helen

Maybe that’s what God is: It just happens.
        —Overheard in a hospital elevator

A man steps out to buy bread and arrives at the store
to find he’s left his keys and his wallet
locked away in his room.
Maybe later he’ll say, It just happens,
but for now he walks around downtown
and gets lost and spends the day
in a park where a young woman’s chasing
her best friend’s collie. Since Lester has a way
with animals he and Helen round up the collie
and talk dogs a little.
The leash broke, Helen says.
It’s chilly, so Lester offers his coat.
They laugh and have coffee, and Lester
asks can he see her again. They go to the show,
hold hands, marry and have two sons, Bill and Jack.
And this is not magic.
Or no more than how we picture both
boys in knickers and place them in school.
Imagine the 30s.
Black, wide-fendered cars line the streets and the boys
wear caps and Jack carries his books in a green canvas bag.
Bill carries his with a strap.
In a few years Bill’s
off to college where someone says,
One day I’ll introduce you to Margaret.
Bill’s shy – first he will, and then he won’t.
And then he will.
So they meet and they order the cold plate, talk,
talk, talk: Bill loves science, Margaret loves books,
and they marry and forty years later they finally divorce.
Still, whatever they say and however events
come together and dates add up, this
is where my own life starts.
The truth is it couldn’t have happened otherwise.
And that it just happened.

© Mark Kraushaar, The Uncertainty Principle, The Waywiser Press, 2011

Mark Kraushaar of Lake Mills, Wisconsin, joined Shoshauna Shy for a conversation about his poem “Lester and Helen.” Fix yourself a cup of tea, pull up a chair, and listen in.

MARK: I’ve worked briefly as a high school English teacher, a cab driver, a welder on the coal and grain barges of the Mississippi, and a pipe welder at Ingalls Shipbuilding. I am now an RN and work in Madison, which I’ve done since the mid-80s.

SHOSHAUNA: And I’d say that your current occupation feeds into “Lester and Helen” from your new book The Uncertainty Principle which won the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize in 2010 and was published by The Waywiser Press in 2011. The poem seems to be constructed on what I think of as a family legend—a tale savored and passed down from holiday table to table. Could you speak to what planted the seed of inspiration for this poem?

MARK: The truth is, I never met Lester and Helen. They were my father’s parents, as I say in the poem, and were killed in a train wreck shortly after my parents were married. Actually, what inspired the poem was just how wildly unlikely, and yet strangely inevitable one’s arrival on Earth seems to be. The phrase for God, “It just happens” seemed wonderfully plain, mysterious and apt all at once, and I did overhear this one day on an elevator in the hospital where I worked.

SHOSHAUNA: Yes, I believe your epigraph—something overheard—contributes nicely to this poem, presents another dimension to it, and the way you echo the epigraph in the final line clicks everything into place. The fact that the words overheard were in an elevator—and not just any elevator but a hospital elevator —really works well. That said, do you remember when you selected this epigraph—in other words, did you have the poem written already, or did the epigraph precede the writing?

MARK: “Lester and Helen” had been marinating for awhile when I heard this; it wasn’t a poem that came very quickly, I remember. That phrase was a help in getting the poem moving again, and seemed the sort of mystical (but not very helpful) definition of God provided in the Old Testament—you know, “I am that I am.” So, I thought wow, great!

And that the conversation with this bit of speculation in it took place in a hospital elevator gave it a lot of resonance—the three or four family members all looked a bit stricken, and were apparently trying to make some kind of sense of a health care mystery that was beyond understanding.

SHOSHAUNA: Well, the implication here is that you wouldn’t have been born—and be who you are—if that collie’s leash had stayed intact or your grandfather didn’t forget his wallet that morning. Both of these seemingly insignificant things contributed to your birth, and that’s where “Lester and Helen” has universal appeal. In my case, my dad’s former fiancée saw this blonde jitterbugging at a camp picnic, and told him, “There’s the woman for you!” My father agreed, broke up with his fiancée, and dated the dancer instead who subsequently became my mom.

MARK: I bet there’d be a good poem to make out of the ex-fianceé’s conversation with herself after that!

SHOSHAUNA: Well, please write it because I want to read that poem! But getting back to “Lester and Helen,” I am wondering what more you might know about that “cold plate” which comprised the first meal your parents ever shared, at least in the poem. If it is factual, when and how did you learn about it? Then again, if it wasn’t really a cold plate that they shared, perhaps you might explain why you chose to use it in this instance. I have to say it gives me a chill, especially when I get to that line “…forty years later they finally divorce.”

MARK: I thought I wanted to create something, some image having to do with this scene that seemed as specific as it did mundane. What could be duller than the cold plate, maybe egg salad?

SHOSHAUNA: No, bologna on rye! Seriously, what strikes me about the last two lines is the juxtaposition of two separate concepts: one references an absolute precision; the other serendipity. Together, they make for an inexplicable magic that I didn’t in any way anticipate. Is that the effect you were after?

MARK: I think they’re both true, these separate concepts, I mean, that this and this and the other happened…but how we each arrive here beyond anything understood is what I was after. I mean, that we’re kind of beached by the same wave as our family and friends seems simultaneously impossible and inevitable. I like that.

SHOSHAUNA: What a terrific image, Mark —getting beached! Maybe save that for your next poem, OK?

If you’d like to contact Mark Kraushaar to continue the conversation about this poem, you can reach him here: mjklakemills (at) frontier (dot) com.